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Each year, tens of thousands of people undergo unnecessary thyroid surgeries to remove part or the entire hormone gland after doctors discover suspicious nodules. He or she then faces a tense waiting period to see if, over time, clear signs of cancer develop.
But what if a test could analyze cell samples in a laboratory to determine with a high degree of certainty if cancer is present? If genomic markers coded in cells could signal doctors that a tumor is benign, many patients could avoid the unnecessary trauma, cost, discomfort and risk of surgery.
Welcome to the future.
Doctors at the University of Colorado School of Medicine are helping to pioneer this revolutionary genomic approach that only a few months ago was unavailable to thyroid patients. It is being successfully used at limited sites around the country, but could be coming to a hospital near you next year.
Dr. Bryan Haugen, MD, who heads the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes at the CU medical schools says usually cells extracted from suspicious nodules in the thyroid are benign, but in 15 to 30 percent of those samples it’s simply hard to tell.
The next step requires surgeons to remove all or part of the thyroid for further testing. The good news is about 70 percent of the time, no cancer is present. The bad news is the patient is unnecessarily subjected to surgery and lifelong thyroid hormone treatments.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of your neck that produces hormones that controls your metabolism speed. Unexplained weight gain, swelling or enlargement in the neck— called nodules, high blood pressure and heart palpitations, tiredness, depression and difficulty sleeping, hair loss, and numbness or tingling in the hands can all be symptoms of a thyroid disorder.
Haugen is part of a national team who sought an alternative to surgery to determine if cancer was present in those hard-to-tell cell samples. It turns out all the information doctors need is coded in a person’s genes.